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Grant’s River Campaign: Fort Henry to Shiloh

 Jack H. Lepa. McFarland & Co.

The day Fort Donelson fell was the day the South lost the Civil War, according to Jack Lepa, who argues it was the war’s turning point even though more than three years of fighting would ensue before the Confederacy  admitted it was beaten. Donelson had been preceded by a nearly bloodless Union naval victory at Fort Henry, and the gains it signaled would be solidified two months later at Shiloh. The campaign encompassing those three Union victories effectively launched Ulysses S. Grant’s Civil War career.

Lepa underscores the strategic importance of these Northern victories, which “immediately changed the entire military situation in the West.” Kentucky and much of Tennessee fell under Union control, Nashville was exposed to capture, and the North received a sorely needed boost in morale. Parts of this campaign have been well documented before, but Lepa’s narrative explains the salient military aspects of the battles, which would have economic and political consequences for the South.

He relies heavily on primary sources, particularly regimental histories, which enables him to intersperse colorful anecdotes throughout his narrative. He includes three, for example, about Grant’s senior division commander, Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith, an old professional soldier. One Indiana soldier recalled seeing a cigar shot out of Smith’s mouth, only to have him calmly reach for another and light it. While leading an attack, Smith yelled at his hesitating troopers, “You volunteered to be killed for love of country, and now you can be.” And when Grant asked Smith his opinion of the Rebel request for surrender terms, the gruff old soldier reportedly responded, “No terms to the damned rebels”—which his superior officer would famously  translate into “unconditional surrender.”

While Lepa breaks no new ground, he capably demonstrates that during the River Campaign of 1862 Grant honed the skills he would use to bring about victory for the North.


Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.